Shabbir Lakha reports on the Convoy to Calais, which the French police shamefully turned back at the border
Along with a 45 foot lorry filled with aid, over 250 vehicles gathered on Whitehall on Saturday morning with the intention of heading to Calais to deliver the aid and bring solidarity to refugees living in destitution. However, upon arrival at Dover, French border police refused to let the convoy board the ferry, having issued a ban.
A peaceful protest ensued as the 1000 strong convoy were rightfully outraged that the French authorities were refusing to allow humanitarian aid through. “We have aid, let us through, refugees are human too” people shouted, unfortunately, to no avail. The convoy then drove back to London to protest outside the French Embassy and some of the aid which wasn’t allowed through was left on the steps of the embassy. “Every embassy in London is sovereign territory for the government that it represents. So we’ve brought this aid and we’ve dumped it on a small bit of French territory in the middle of London,” said John Rees, addressing the protestors.
Why the Convoy was necessary
Recent census figures of the unofficial camp in Calais show that there is an increased amount of arrivals and the refugee population is now over 6000 people – around 700 of whom are children. The French government’s refusal to recognise the camp as an emergency situation has meant that humanitarian NGO’s have not been allowed to work in the camp, which has left volunteer organisations as the sole providers of support for the refugees in Calais. However, following the forced eviction of half of the camp by the French police, there has been widespread misinformation that the camp no longer exists, which has resulted in a depletion of donations and reduced number of volunteers.
But as well as delivering urgently needed humanitarian aid, the convoy was organised to send out a strong and clear political message. This message was that we represent the majority of the British people in standing firmly against our government’s shameful unwillingness to allow refugees in Calais into the UK – the majority of who have a legal right to claim for asylum in the UK. The message was that we do not accept the vile xenophobic and racist rhetoric that has been ramped up by both sides of the EU referendum campaigns.
Why the French authorities were wrong
The ban was issued on 15th June 2016 by Fabienne Buccio, who is a French government official in charge of the camp in Calais and responsible for the eviction of large parts of the camp earlier this year. The ban was ratified by central government despite a confirmation from organisers of the Convoy that there was no protest action planned and a rally would be held in a private venue away from the Camp after aid was delivered to a warehouse managed by established volunteer organisations.
The ban was issued 3 days before the Convoy was taking place, despite the authorities being aware of it for several months. They reiterated security concerns as the reason for the ban and recent violence involving English football fans in France was cited. However, we witnessed many football fans in cars donning English flags allowed to pass through the border control without hesitation. Yet a peaceful convoy delivering humanitarian aid in an industrial area of Calais was deemed as more of a potential security threat.
And it wasn’t just the French authorities in the wrong; the refusal to allow the Convoy through was carried out with the collusion of the British police. While the Convoy regrouped at a service station in Folkestone, the police went around collecting information of number plates at the request of French authorities (despite them already having this information) and some of those who were refused to go through were then not allowed by the police to rejoin the Convoy when the protest began.
The outcome and what we do next
Despite the refusal to let the Convoy through, I believe it was a success, for three reasons:
Firstly, even though the large amount of aid that people who came on the Convoy brought with them being refused into Calais, the lorry carrying 38 tonnes of aid that was gathered in the months leading up to the Convoy successfully made it to Calais because it went separately through the Channel Tunnel. War on Want’s van and a few other vehicles also managed to get through and deliver the aid they were carrying.
Secondly, the political message and solidarity we brought with us was loud and clear and only amplified by the French government’s actions. In a political climate dominated by fearmongering and bigotry, the Convoy was a reminder that hatred and scapegoating immigrants are not British values. A speech from Diane Abbott MP at the start of the Convoy relayed a message from Jeremy Corbyn calling it “a beacon of hope in dark times”.
And finally but importantly, the Convoy was organised by a large number of campaigning organisations and trade unions who came together despite the political differences some of them may have. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum on 23rd June, we must all stand united in opposing racism, xenophobia and the policies of austerity and warmongering that are used as an excuse for them and the Convoy has proved that we can, and we will.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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